BMS: essential for survival

Building Management Systems: what you need to know

Your building management system is a backbone to keeping your lab secure.  The system should monitor everything from access control, to plumping, to the air conditioning service etc.  Some systems also control the CCTV coverage (if you have it and/or need it).

From the lab manager’s point of view, the most important sections of a BMS system are those that monitor dangers in the lab, and those that monitor the air conditioning systems.  Before we get to that, it’s important to understand who is in charge of your BMS.

A question of territory

As a rule, you will not be in charge of your building’s BMS, and honestly, there is no reason you should (unless you are running a large scale enterprise).  That means the BMS will likely be under the control of your building manager, who will almost certainly have contracted this out to a third party (I’ll discuss examples of that towards the end).

This is one of those classic tangles of responsibility and responsiveness that makes this job so much fun.  You need the information that is in the BMS system, but you don’t want to cause unnecessary trouble by standing on anyone’s toes, or, for that matter, finding yourself saddled with additional responsibilities that are out of your job description.  So make sure you get the written permission from everyone down the line, and make sure you have direct lines of contact to each person.  That last bit is crucial – if there is a problem, you don’t have the time to go through the long trickle-down game of talking to the building manager who’ll talk to his contracting company who’ll talk to their contractor.  You need to be able to speak with the contractor immediately.

Monitoring Dangers

If your lab deals with any dangerous gases, it will be necessary for there to be an alarm system present (depending on where you are based, this may be the law).  My lab has over a hundred of them.  Some examples of gas detectors:

  • Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) sensors that report danger and trigger an alarm at 10-20% of the volume necessary for a gas to become explosive.
  • Oxygen sensor.  The human body works at ~20% oxygen concentration.  Below that level, people become befuddled and will eventually pass out and asphyxiate; this is a particular danger if you are storing liquid nitrogen or dry ice.  However, at too high levels of oxygen, it becomes toxic (a real problem with divers).  High oxygen levels also make fires and explosions more likely.
  • Sensors keyed to individual dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide etc.

Then there are the fire alarms, and break-in alarms.  These are the major dangers.  A good BMS system should route these directly to your phone, and preferably to two back-up phones.  If this capability isn’t already there, make sure it is.

Air conditioning alarms

It’s an odd thing, but the air conditioning system and what it does is a big risk control.  If the A/C knocks out, temperatures will quickly rise and render the lab unusable (this is particularly true in biology laboratory – I remember one summer in my Ph.D. when the A/C failure took out all our labs).  Much more dangerously, A/C imbalances can create serious pressure problems – the ‘hurricane door’ phenomenon.  I’ve had to face suction so strong on a door that it takes all of my strength to open it, due to an imbalance in the input-output systems.  Then there’s humidity.  In my part of the world, it’s a constant presence.  An A/C imbalance can cause humidity to go berserk, and quite quickly too: I’ve seen puddles of water form within fifteen minutes.  These are all alarms that should be fed back to you.

Non-Alarm information

It’s also worth getting a good time-course of the information.  Time-courses can reveal what individual alarms do not.  For example, let’s say that you have a certain set-point where the humidity triggers the alarm.  That level isn’t reached, but the level keeps varying up and down, approaching it.  That could indicate an underlying problem.  It’s worth taking a look each day to see if anything weird pops out of the data and out at you.

Here’s a basic list of information you should expect to receive for each room from the BMS system:

  • Temperature
  • Air supply
  • Exhaust volume
  • Rate of air change
  • Air pressure
  • Humidity

Where do you store it?

Most BMS systems are run off a dedicated computer.  As we all know, computers eventually break down.  It may be my imagination, but they seem to be breaking down more and more frequently than they did when I was a lad.  In any case, it’s reasonable for you to ask for back-up systems to be in place, and failing that, at least some way to know that the system is working (for example, regular ‘the system is working’ emails or texts.

Who builds this stuff?

This isn’t really your concern, but it is worth having some idea of who is behind the BMS system.  We work with Schneider, and they have generally been very good in keeping things going.  These are dedicated systems where the companies rely on reputation and repeat business, so you are likely to get good service if you go with a local recommendation.










The building management system electronically monitors what is going on in the lab.  It will be run from a dedicated computer that is separate from the rest.  There are sensors in the lab and outside, and sensors on the A/C.  IT’s important to have a good contractor

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